Isn’t it funny how a single smell or sound can transport you instantly from the here and now into the way back when? For me, the smell of a certain air freshener whisks me back to Grahamstown in the early 1990s. I was staying in a motel on my own for two weeks, conducting the hopeless pro bono defence of a sullen and clearly guilty bloke who had taken part in a botched robbery; crying nightly over the man I thought was the love of my life who had just dumped me (by letter, no less!); spending long afternoons over bottomless cups of coffee at the Spur Steak Ranch bemoaning my fate to a patient girlfriend; and eating chicken stir fry alone in the restaurant ever night for 14 days. The trip ended with my client receiving the double death penalty for murder.
Suffice to say that I do not use this air freshener in my house.
On a happier memory note, one whiff of the oil they use on bowling alley lanes whisks me straight back to Port Elizabeth in the 1980s when they opened the first bowling alley I had ever been to. I am instantly transformed into a teenager wearing my beloved pink trainers, Ronald Sassoon stretch jeans (an innovation of jaw-dropping stylishness at the time), hair in a side-ponytail, and feeling as much heady excitement as if I had actually stepped onto the set of Grease every time I walked through the bowling alley doors. The jeans, ponytail and trainers are all long gone (probably for the best!), but I am pleased to say that a whisper of that long-ago excitement still returned when I walked into the Westfield, Stratford City branch of All Star Lanes to meet up with Michelle, Louis, Sarah and Margot recently. All Star Lanes is a small chain of four boutique bowling and dining venunes spread across London. Founded in 2006 the company’s vision was to revamp the image of bowling in the UK by creating a bowling alley that was intimate, accessible, luxurious and fun (rather than out of town, lit with fluorescent strips serving flat beer in plastig cups!) Throw in some home-cooked classics from the American south, real cocktails, great music, private bowling rooms… and voila: boutique bowling was born.
The Westfield Stratford branch is the newest of the four and was opened together wth the rest of the centre late in 2011. It’s a large space, comprising 14 bowling lanes, a cocktail bar and a restaurant area, all reasonably screened off from each other so that you don’t feel too much as if you are eating in a sporting venue. Although our waitress (in possibly the cutest waitress uniform I have ever seen) assured us that the other branches were more luxurious than this one, if like me you remember bowling alleys from the 1980s, this is the height of bowling luxury (with light fittings so funky I wanted to take them home with me!). Like us, you can start off with cocktails in the bar: I tried an All-Star Julep followed later by a Dark & Stormy (both £7.50) – quite possibly the best I’ve had in London), nibbling on the chilli corn snacks before moving to your table. The menu stays firmly in American territory, and mostly in the Deep South. Chicken wings rub shoulders with hush puppies, chimichangas, pulled pork, mac ‘n cheese and Texas chilli – a smorgasbord of comfort food! There is also a selection of steaks, salads, and indulgent sandwiches like Philadelphia cheese steak, pulled pork & apple, and salt beef & gherkin.
I started with refried bean and avocado tostados (£5) – a generous portion of three large and loaded tostados. The tostados were satisfyingly crisp and the refried beans were pleasantly spicy (although maybe a tad too mashed and lacking in texture?), plus the generous dollop of avocado was creamy and lovely. A winner. Other choices at our table included popcorn salt & pepper squid with chilli jam (£5.50) – a HUGE portion of light,crispy and well-seasoned squid pieces and very nicely styled; a short rack of ribs (£7) – which were beautifully marinaded and fell apart at the touch of a fork; duck and cilantro chimichangas (£6) and vegetable & cilantro chimichangas (£5) - both tasty, light and crispy and served with excellent dipping sauces. I think it’s fair to say that starters were winners all round.
My choice of mains was a no-brainer. I have been in love with pulled pork from the first time I read about it and if I see it on a menu my decision is automatically made so for me it was BBQ pulled pork and rainbow slaw (£12) with a side-order of hush puppies (as in the Southern cornmeal fritters, not the sensible suede shoes!). Now I’ve tried a few versions of pulled pork, and this one was a standout. The meat was properly shredded – not cut but pulled apart; the BBQ sauce was the right balance of sweetly spiced, and the portion was enormous. Utter, total comfort food. I found the slaw a little disappointing – definitely too vinegary for me, and next time I would order the standard mayonnaise-heavy coleslaw instead. The hush puppies were excellent, crispy on the outside and smooshy on the inside. Elsewhere, Michelle had a big portion of baby back ribs (£16 – excellent but drier than the starter portion) and wonderfully crisp sweet potato fries (£3) on the side. Margot had grilled salmon with baby beets and horseradish cream (£12) which was beautifully cooked, still moist and pink; and Sarah had the blackened chicken fillet burger (£9) which came topped with 2 huge mushrooms – and unusually for chicken, the meat was lovely and moist. The only duff note in the mains was Louis, who opted for the All Star 8oz prime beef burger (£9.50) - despite its impressive size, the meat was overdone and a little, which is a silly mistake to make in a burger-obsessed city like London. Other sides included coleslaw (£3) which was quite mayonnaise-heavy and just the way I like it; steamed broccoli with pecan butter (£3) which was, umm, steamed broccoli with crumbled pecans on top, no discernible butter; and a mini mac ‘n cheese (£3.50) which I thought was quite possibly the next best thing to finding out you’ve won the lottery while out on a date with George Clooney – positively saffron-coloured with butter and topped with a crust of gooey cheese – but which the others thought was “too buttery” (not a term my internal database recognises!).
After this, we took a break both because we could not face any more food for a while, and because our alocated time slot for a bowling lane had rolled around (more on that in a moment). But once the bowling was done our appetites seemed somewhat revived and we returned to explore the dessert menu. The dessert menu is positively petite compared to the main menu, featuring classics like pie a la mode, cupcakes, whoopie pies, cheesecake and a selection of sundaes. Instead of dessert I opted for the Reese’s milkshake (£4.50), reasoning that a milkshake would be less filling than an actual dessert. That may have been true, in some sort of microscopic sense, but the milkshake is a hefty dessert in itself, heavy with ice cream and the chocolate peanut butter flavours of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Yummy. My companions chose the vanilla cheesecake with a berry compote (£5 – good vanilla flavour but a little too sweet for me), the Bourbon raisin and chocolate brownie (£6 – incredibly rich, super-gooey, super-chocolatey, nice bourbon bite to the raisins) and the chocolate whoopie pie (£3). The whoopie pie, I have to say, looked nothing at all like a whoopie pie (which normally looks like the giant cakey cousin of a macaron) but more like a mini layer-cake, lavishly slathered in chocolate icing – which is no bad thing! The icing was a bit much for me, but the cake itself was excellent with a deep cocoa flavour. Between all five of us, we could only finish about half, making it astonishing value for money. Two hungry people could easily share this!
Liked: the Southern menu, the retro music, the Dark & Stormy cocktails (!)
Disliked: the overdone hamburger
On a scale of 1 to 10: 7 for the food, 8 for the whole experience
For other perspectives on our meal, please check out my dining companions’ blogs:
Michelle of Greedy Gourmet
Sarah of Maison Cupcake
Margot of Coffee & Vanilla
Louis of Tuck & Vine
DISCLOSURE: We enjoyed our meal and bowling game as guests of All Star Lanes.
Westfield Stratford City